Behind The Voice: Get To Know Top Equestrian Sports Commentator Steven Wilde

Equestrian enthusiasts around the world will recognize their voices nearly anywhere. We know their names, what they sound like and sometimes even what they look like, but we don’t know anything else about them. Phelps Sports is thrilled to begin a new series, “Behind The Voice”, where we hope to get to know a little bit more about the equestrian sports commentators that make our sport exciting and accessible to audiences around the world.

To kick things off we sat down with quite possibly one of the most recognizable voices in equestrian sports, Steven Wilde, whose rich British accent can be heard across horse show venues around the world. Originally from Wiltshire, England, Wilde has been long involved in equestrian sports commentating. Today, he boasts a long list of events on his resume, including four Olympic Games, seven European Championships, two World Championships, over 100 World Cup Qualifiers and over ten years on the Longines Global Champions Tour. 

Steven Wilde and John Kyle at the National Horse Show.

How did you get your start in commentating equestrian sports?
Really by accident! I grew up around horses because my mother rode internationally back in the U.K. and my dad was involved in helping run some of the bigger shows nationally. My parents didn’t want me to get into horses at all, but I rode ponies for a bit before going to University. As a teenager though, I ended up helping out at a lot of the shows to earn a bit of extra cash. When I had done just about every job, someone said I should try out a bit of commentating! That was in 2001 and the Winter National Championships back in the U.K. was my first event. It rocketed after that! 

I probably slotted in at the right time as well because there was sort of an opening for the position and I was lucky to work with some great people like Mike Tucker, who did commentating in both the U.K. and in the States, Nick Brooks-Ward, who does Olympia and has done three or four previous Olympic Games, so I had some really great teachers that had worked all over the world. Sadly, there are a few that are no longer with us, but Nick [Brooks-Ward] and I are still going!

Do you think “your voice” has changed over the years?
I think it is something that has changed over the years. I was lucky enough to have a good upbringing because if you heard the local accent of where I am from regionally you would probably say I would never be an announcer, but my grandmother always made sure that I had decent elocution growing up! Another factor in my voice has been the fact that I have been lucky enough to travel globally. Your voice gets shaped by the different places you are in and because I don’t spend a very long time in any one place, I have ended up with a very good transatlantic accent that allows me to hopefully, sit on both sides of the world. I have commentated anywhere from the Middle East to China, so when you spend time everywhere you become less influenced by where you grew up. These days I would say I have a smattering of American mixed in with my British and everywhere else I have been!

What does a typical day in the life look like for you as an announcer?
It really depends on the client and if I am doing television or straight announcing. Somewhere like the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) is very different from doing the Global Champions Tour (GCT) television day. 

Somewhere like WEF, you are on-site from seven o’clock and you are going through all of the classes. If it is a Saturday with a night class, it is a long day! 

If it is a television day, you might not be going on until three, four, five o’clock in the afternoon, but you are spending most of your day researching. Everybody thinks you just finish the show and then go home, but you actually spend a day or two days preparing for the next one. When you have TV days you usually have production meetings in the morning, and running through every detail of how it is going to work because once you go on air, you are probably live and there is no going back at that point! After the production meeting, it is a matter of going through your notes and deciding what you need to add based on who or what we are introducing to the program. Whether it is guests in the studio or a specific story you feel is going to come out, you have to be prepared. There is a rule of thumb in television that you do three hours of research to every one hour on the air, so once you start stretching that out it takes quite a while. Thankfully, when you see people all the time, it makes things a bit easier because you watched how they did last weekend and can talk about it this week.

It depends on the show if I prefer doing TV or direct announcing. Saturday night at WEF or any day at Olympia is incredible to be in the arena with the crowd going nuts – it is amazing! Whereas in television, you are delivering to an audience that you can’t see or hear, so you don’t know what their reaction is. In television, you can go into much more detail and you are really thinking about how you are crafting your words, especially for those really big moments because unlike in the arena, a television bit will get replayed! 

With a life that is on the road so much, what does your year typically look like, and do you have a home base somewhere?
In a usual year, I would typically start at the WEF for the first part of the year with a few trips to the Middle East in-between. That is quite nice because it is the longest I get to stay in one place. The rest of the year is hopping on and off planes like crazy. After WEF, I move onto the GCT in Mexico, Miami, Shanghai and nearly all of that tour. I go back to the U.K. for the Royal Windsor Horse Show, which is always a pleasure being in the Queen’s back garden. Following that it is back on the GCT with a few of my home events like the Hickstead Derby mixed in. Last year I did the European Championships in Rotterdam for BBC and the Tokyo Olympic test event. In September, I switch over to eventing mode for the Burghley Horse Trials before going back to the States for the GCT in New York. From there I have been going to Nations Cup Final in Barcelona for the past few years and then I really jump between the U.S. and Europe for the World Cup classes. I end on a high at Olympia, which is one of my favorite shows, especially with all of the Christmas cheer. Following Christmas, the cycle starts all over again! I do try to slot in a day or two to enjoy the places we are in throughout the year. 

My home base is in Wiltshire, England, but I am not there very often. I try to fly home Sunday night after the show so that I am home either Sunday night or Monday morning. That gives me Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at home when I am doing the European shows. It is better that way because it gives you a bit more time. It is tiring but you get used to it – I enjoy what I do so it doesn’t feel like work!

What show is your favorite to announce at?
I wouldn’t say I have a favorite because I am really lucky to do some of the best shows in the world, but we all sort of have a top few. I do love doing Olympia at Christmas – it is amazing! I guess any of the home shows are special to me because I am not at home as often. Hickstead is a lovely family to work with and it truly is like being with family because we all stay in the house together. The U.S. shows have become a bit of home over the years as well. Saturday nights at WEF are great because you get a big audience and you can really go for it!

What are your favorite classes to announce for?
I don’t have a specific favorite, but I do love doing the big championship moments. It doesn’t matter if it is the Olympic Games or the GCT, they are incredible to be a part of. Prague last year with Ben Maher was a moment that made you hold your breath. The emotions you go through watching these riders from across the world come together for these big moments where everything is on the line is something you never shake. When Nick Skelton won the Olympic Games I had tears running down my eyes while trying to commentate. A lot of the athletes are friends of course but more importantly, you have bought into an emotion. You want to convey what is going on but you also feel a part of it yourself, so you are emotionally charged with it. When you have to keep yourself level but also bring emotion to the audience it is difficult! Things like the Puissance are fine, but it is really those big important moments where you are really under pressure to get it right that mean the most. 

You get nervous, which I think is good because it means you care. I always say that the day I don’t get nervous I will just pack up. You need to be on edge and feel some emotion. If you are nervous, it means that you know what is on the line.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the sport since your career started and what things have stayed the same?
Funnily enough, the way I got back into it was because my parents didn’t want me to have anything to do with it! My mum having ridden she always told me there was no money in it so I should go do something else! So back when I started I was doing the county shows at home and the big national shows at home. Now, the sport is very international and I have been lucky enough to ride that wave and go around the world to do all of those. That train changed almost quite dramatically when I started. Last year I did countless 5* events, purely because there were so many! I remember being in a car with John Whitaker and we were talking about the number of shows when he started and there were four or five shows a year that were big international shows. Even in 10 years that has tripled! When I started, if I did Olympia and the Horse of The Year Show I was doing well. Now, we are doing shows on the beach in Miami and other amazing places. It has changed a lot in terms of the number of shows and in terms of globalization.

I think the competitiveness of the riders has stayed the same. Their ability to handle pressure has been consistent no matter the size of show or where it is. The lucky thing is that because we are in a sport that has longevity, there have been a lot of new faces along the way in addition to the people I have known for 20 odd years at that level. When you talk to a lot of them you realize that it wouldn’t matter if they were jumping for $1,000 or $1,000,000, they want to do well. The horses have also stayed the same. The point has always been that we have to consider the welfare of the horse all the way through. As much as we have changed the surrounding of these events, what happens in the arena is still the same anywhere around the world. The comrade and the people involved have absolutely stayed the same.  

There are very few people on my list that I haven’t interviewed at some point and you get an insight into how they think and how they work. That is what I find interesting. You get to see how each of them handle it and channel it as opposed to the rest of us that end up shaking and falling apart! The riders actually pick it up and use it, and that is the difference between them and us.  

Has the use of live streams changed your job in any way?
It has changed it in a good way as far as numbers go because it has kept me employed. I think it has also allowed the sport to come into many more people’s lives than it was able to a few years ago. It is all about a global audience now. When I was growing up it was all about it being shown on BBC, which is great and is a good audience, however, now it is all about people looking at a show and everyone around the world being able to watch it. Live streams have changed that in that people can view it around the world. We aren’t just covering for NBC or BBC any more, which would only reach a British or American audience. Now, anyone around the world can see it, which is great because you get a lot of responses from around the world. I have lots of friends that find it on social media, so the feedback is coming from a truly global family. 

Overall, I think some of it is for the better in that we are reaching a global market, but with the way television has gone it, unfortunately, means that our sport and many others are not reaching a general audience anymore. There are so many specialized sports channels that now it is about finding it on one of those sports channels rather than on one of the national channels. You do still find it every now and again on the BBC, but the days of where they would show the whole thing are gone. Now what we do is what we call “Red Button,” which is essentially a live stream version that is edited into an hour-long program for that Sunday or as a highlight real on Monday, which is great for an audience but it isn’t the same. When my mother was show jumping, Horse of The Year would be on every night at 9 o’clock on the BBC. Imagine that being the case now! People would look at it like we have three heads! So live stream has given us a global audience because television and the way it is used has changed so much. Live stream has given us more outlets, but we don’t have as much of the mainstream coverage. That is not peculiar to equestrian sport, however, that is across the board – everyone has gone into their specialized streams.

How do you think the sport could be changed to be more network television-friendly/more spectator-friendly like it was in the past?
I think it is about highlighting the highlights. At WEF and Tryon they have done a great job of developing Saturday nights into an event that everyone goes to. A lot of shows globally have a lot going on all day long and for that reason, it isn’t that spectator friendly. It also depends on who you are trying to gear it towards. Somewhere like Olympia is geared towards being entertainment and more like theater. It is a small field with entertainment in-between and you can enjoy it with your whole family whether you are horsey or not. 

A lot of it is down to production, but also what you are trying to achieve. Every football match is not about filling the stands. The majority of the sport is about people competing in the sport, but we somehow have to make the highlights stand out. The good thing is that we have a lot of big sport now and a lot going on, but then how does anybody outside of the sport ever sift through to find what they are supposed to be watching or following? There is a huge amount of sport, which is great, but for the outside audience, it is difficult to find what to look at now. Around the world, we have sort of lost the power of events standing out as they all get lost in the noise. In Europe, Aachen stands out around the world but there are another 500 shows that take place throughout the year. The majority of Germany does not go to watch those other shows but chances are that most will watch Aachen because it has that history and sport. 

We have ended up with more sport, but we are a bit lost in where we are aiming our audience. There are a lot of shows that are great in their respective regions, but sometimes we are guilty of being horse people looking at horse events and saying “That is interesting,” because some of us will sit through a class of 70 horses and be fascinated by it, but to the general public that is as dull as dishwater! They don’t really know what they are looking at it. People want small class sizes so that it is short and sharp.

At the end of the day, it all depends on what your show is being tailored for. That is not to say anyone has it right or wrong, it just depends what your formula is. It is not good trying to sell to the public something that isn’t a public event.

 

Steven Wilde interviews Robert Ridland at the 2019 Washington International Horse Show. Photo by Ashley Neuhof Photography

Most embarrassing moment/biggest mess up?
I actually had one this year at WEF! In fact, there was a running total between myself and Max Von Zimmermann, who did the Nations Cup this year with me at Deeridge. He announced a big welcome to “Jessica Simpson” instead of “Jessica Springsteen” and we were howling about that one! Unfortunately, a few weeks later I followed it up at the last show we did in Wellington by announcing Paris Sellon as “Paris Hilton”! That was of course on Saturday night where everyone was a bit tense because CoronaVirus had just sort of begun, so a few people actually found a bit of comic relief from it! That was probably my most recent ones but there have been various other ones over the years where my words have got mixed up and have not come out as well as I would have liked! My Paris Hilton one was truly a classic though, and I still apologize to Paris Sellon today!

What is your favorite memory as an announcer?
It would probably have to be Nick Skelton winning the gold medal in Rio, just because I had known him all of my life and I knew how much this meant. This was really the end of his career and his whole background story leading up to this something else. I was around for the years that he was told he would never ride again and as lovely and as cantankerous as he can be at times, he is someone that has always been in my life. I announced in London with the team there when he just missed out on the individual gold, so for him to come back and win it at his last shot in 2016 was something I will never forget. He was in tears, we were in tears and I was lucky enough to go celebrate with him that night. There have been a few incredible moments, but that memory is certainly up there on the list.

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